How to Get Students Talking! By Lisa Ann de Garcia

How to Get Students Talking!
Generating Math Talk That Supports Math Learning
By Lisa Ann de Garcia
Due to the attention in the last few years on discourse and its importance to student learning, educators
nationwide are finding that they can help children become confident problem solvers by focusing on getting
them to talk and communicate in partnerships, small groups, whole groups, and in writing. In addition,
English Language Learners are flourishing as they experience focused opportunities for talking and trying on
new mathematical vocabulary.
So what exactly is discourse? What are the teaching practices associated with successfully establishing
an environment to support it, and as a result, to improve mathematical proficiency? How does one begin
to elicit meaningful talk during math lessons? As a profession, we share a vision about the role student
discourse has in the development of students’ mathematical understanding, but are often slow to bring the
students along. Children do not naturally engage in this level of talk.
This article addresses the above questions and concerns—and more. It opens with a look at discourse
through NCTM’s definition and its involvement with the Common Core State Standards. It then focuses on
literature available on discourse, specifically the book Classroom Discussions, and addresses five teaching
practices focused on the how to of getting students talking about mathematics. The article concludes with
journaling insights on discourse from a kindergarten and second-grade classroom. This article is by no
means an exhaustive list of discourse “to dos;” hopefully it will however get us all started in thinking about
and implementing best talk practices.
What is Discourse in the Mathematics Classroom?
NCTM’s Definition
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) in their 1991 professional standards describes
discourse as ways of representing, thinking, talking, agreeing, and disagreeing; the way ideas are exchanged
and what the ideas entail; and as being shaped by the tasks in which students engage as well as by the
nature of the learning environment.
A View Through The Common Core Lens
As much of the country begins to implement the new Common Core State Standards, it is important to
reflect on the role of discourse in these new standards. The Common Core was created based on five
process standards: communication, reasoning and proof (another form of communication), problem solving,
representation, and connections. Evidence of the importance of communication in learning mathematics is
found in the Common Core introduction in statements such as, “One hallmark of mathematical understanding
is the ability to justify . . . a student who can explain the rule understands the mathematics and may have a
better chance to succeed at a less familiar task . . .” (p. 4). In the grade-specific standards, the importance of
communication in learning mathematics is reflected in statements such as , “Students also use the meaning
of fractions, of multiplication and division, and the relationship between multiplication and division to
understand and explain why the procedures for multiplying and dividing fractions make sense” (p. 33).
These Common Core statements make it clear that conceptual understanding must be connected to the
procedures, and that one way to deepen conceptual understanding is through the communication students
have around concepts, strategies, and representations.
Learning from Literature on Discourse
One of the leading resources for discourse is Classroom Discussions: Using Math Talk to Help Students Learn
(Chapin, O’Connor, and Anderson 2009). This resource and others highlight five teaching practices associated
with improving the quality of discourse in the classroom.
Five Teaching Practices for Improving the Quality of Discourse in Mathematics
Talk moves that engage students in discourse,
The art of questioning,
Using student thinking to propel discussions,
Setting up a supportive environment, and
Orchestrating the discourse.
Practice 1: Talk Moves That Engage Students in Discourse
For the first practice, the authors of Classroom Discussions propose five productive talk moves that can get
talk going in an otherwise silent classroom. The first is revoicing. An example would be, “So you are saying
that . . .” This revoicing allows the teacher to check in with a student about whether what the student said
was correctly heard and interpreted by the teacher or another student. A way to encourage students to
listen to their peers is through asking them to restate someone else’s reasoning, such as, “Can you repeat
what he just said in your own words?” Another way is to ask students to apply their own reasoning to
someone else’s using questions such as “What do you think about that?” and “Do you agree or disagree?
Why?” This helps prevent students from just thinking about what they want to share and focuses their
attention on what their classmates are saying. It also helps to strengthen the connections between ideas.
Simple questions such as, “Would someone like to add on?” are ways teachers can prompt for further
participation. This helps elicit more discussion when not many students are talking, especially when they
are not accustomed to explaining their thinking. Again it helps students to tune in to what others are saying
so that they are able to expand on someone else’s idea.
Perhaps the most valuable talk move suggested by Chapin, O’Connor, and Anderson is the use of wait
time. Often teachers are too quick to answer their own questions when no one chimes in. Children quickly
become accustomed to this. Waiting provides think time and sets the expectation that someone will indeed
respond and that the teacher will wait until someone does. Another important use for wait time is to provide
English Language Learners or anyone who needs extra time with an opportunity to process the question and
formulate an answer. One teacher reported that in his initial uses of wait time, one of his English Language
Learners was able to participate in class discussion for the first time.
Practice 2: The Art of Questioning
Questioning is another critical component in supporting students to engage in meaningful discussions. The
NCTM Standards outline roles questions have in the math classroom. The first role, helping students to work
together to make sense of mathematics, is addressed by the five talk moves discussed above. The second
role, helping students to rely more on themselves to determine whether something is mathematically correct,
can be supported by questions such as, “How did you reach that conclusion? Does that make sense? Can
you make a model and show that?” Questions such as, “Does that always work? Is that true for all cases?
Can you think of a counterexample? How could you prove that?” are designed to help students to learn to
reason mathematically. To help students to learn to conjecture, invent, and solve problems, the teacher
might ask, “What would happen if? Do you see a pattern? Can you predict the next one? What about the last
one?” Finally, teachers use questions to help students connect mathematics, its ideas and applications by
asking, “How does this relate to . . .? What ideas that we have learned were useful in solving this problem?”
Practice 3: Using Student Thinking to Propel Discussions
Because discussions help students to summarize and synthesize the mathematics they are learning, the use of
student thinking is a critical element of mathematical discourse. When teachers help students build on their
thinking through talk, misconceptions are made clearer to both teacher and student, and at the same time,
conceptual and procedural knowledge deepens. When doing so, the teacher must be an active listener so she
can make decisions that will facilitate that talk. She also needs to respond neutrally to errors, so that the students
can figure out misconceptions themselves. For example, the teacher can ask the whole class, “What do you think
about that?” when a student offers an incorrect strategy or can ask the rest of the class to prove whether or not
the strategy works. Through the conversation, the misconception becomes apparent to the class. This practice
results in an authentic discussion focused on the mathematics and not on the individual student. The teacher
also needs to be strategic about who shares during the discussion, since it is not a show-and-tell session, and
choose ideas, strategies, and representations in a purposeful way that enhances the quality of the discussion.
Practice 4: Setting Up a Supportive Environment
When setting up a discourse-rich environment and one that enhances student engagement, both the physical
and emotional environment must be considered. Teachers who have studied engagement find that it is very
effective if students face each other, either sitting in a circle or semi-circle on the floor or sitting in chairs
arranged in a circle. Teachers can sit with students as part of the circle to encourage peer-to-peer discussion.
If teachers are still having difficulty getting children to talk, they can remove themselves from the group and
stand outside the circle. As a result, students are left looking only at each other, which encourages them to
direct their comments to one another.
Careful consideration of the placement of visual aids and mathematically related vocabulary is important
in supporting the level of talk. If charts are not visually accessible when they need to be, they will likely not
be resourced by the students during whole group conversations. To increase the extent to which English
Language Learners participate in group discussions, having related vocabulary and sentence frames where
they can be easily accessed is critical.
For rich discussions, the emotional environment of the classroom must be safe and must be one where
students want to learn and think deeply about the mathematics. When these elements are not present, the
discussion stays at the surface level. Imagine a third grade classroom where the teacher introduces division
for the first time and is met with cheers. It can happen! It happens when the value is on learning, challenging
each other, and working together to solve problems as opposed to just getting the right answer. For more
on setting up a supportive classroom environment for discourse, see Chapter 8 of Classroom Discussions.
Practice 5: Orchestrating the Discourse
The teacher becomes not unlike a conductor as he supports students to deepen their understanding of
mathematics through a carefully orchestrated environment. In Orchestrating Discussions, Smith, Hughes,
Engle, and Stein outline the Five Practices Model, which gives teachers influence over what is likely to
happen in a discussion.
The Five Practices Model
The teacher’s role is to:
1) anticipate student responses to challenging mathematical tasks;
2) monitor students’ work on and engagement with the tasks;
3) select particular students to present their mathematical work;
4) sequence the student responses that will be displayed in specific order; and
5) connect different students’ responses and connect the responses to key mathematical ideas.
Even if the teacher is focused, he still needs to hold students accountable. Otherwise the discussion
will be unproductive. A lot of explicit teaching must go into how to engage in each level of discussion:
whole group, small group, and partnerships. In the younger grades, one will find teachers showing students
exactly what they should look like and sound like when discussing their thinking. Teachers may say things
like, “Today in math, we are going to practice turning and talking with our partner. When I say go, you are
going to turn like this and look at your partner. When I say stop, you are going to turn around and face me.
Let’s practice that right now.” Even older students need to be explicitly taught what to do and say. A teacher
might teach how a partnership functions by saying, “It sounds like you have an idea and you have an idea,
but what seems to be lacking is for you two to put your ideas together to come up with a solution. So, what
is your plan?”
One very effective method of holding students accountable is to let them know exactly what they should
be saying when they are talking in their partnerships or small groups. For example, “Today, when you are
talking to your partners and describing your solid shapes, I expect to hear you using the words faces, edges,
and vertices.” It is also supportive to let students know what they should be focusing on when someone
is sharing a strategy, so they have a lens for listening, which heightens the level of engagement. A teacher
might say, “When he is sharing his thinking, I want you to be thinking of how his way is similar or different
to your way.”
Students need to be aware of themselves as learners, and a great way to heighten this awareness is
through self-evaluation and goal setting. Sometimes the child is the last one to know that he is distracting
or not listening. Part of developing a safe culture is supporting students in being open with each other
regarding their strengths and weaknesses so they can improve their communication skills and behaviors.
It is wonderful to hear one child compliment another when she has participated for the first time or give
gentle correction when another has been dominating the conversation. This level of self-awareness happens
through consistent venues such as class meetings and tracking the progress of personal goals related to
participation in mathematical discussions. The more students open up about themselves as learners, the
deeper the relationships and, as a result, the deeper the trust.
Teaching Points
Partner Talk Expectations
Problem solving possible partner problems, such as:
“What do you do if you both want to go first?”
“How do you talk to your partner if they are not sharing?”
Modeling language such as, “You can go first, or I can go first”
“Turn and Talk”, “hip to hip,” “knee to knee”
Demonstrating with a partner
Modeling with another student how to share
Showing Eye Contact
What Listening Looks Like
Teaching students to ask and answer a question on cue
Ex: “Turn and talk. First partner ask . . . second partner answer . . .”
Using partnerships to move towards whole group share of what they did together
Comparing their work with a partner
Ex: Asking partner, “How did you sort?” Partner answers, “I sorted by . . .”
Have partners share in front of the whole group
Introducing story problem procedures by saying the story a few times while
students listen, then having them repeat it with the teacher a few times, then turn
and tell their partner the story, then solve.
Holding class meetings to help a partnership problem solve something related to
working as partners
Formulating own question to ask their partner
much less
prompting prompting
Whole Group Discussion
Comparing their work as a whole group
“Is what so and so did the same or different as what s/he did?”
Eye contact towards speaker
Can you tell me what so and so said? (revoicing)
“What do you notice about . . .”
( this promoted a lot of talk)
Learning to compare their work with others
Prompting, “Who is talking?” “What should you do?”
Turning and looking with just the heads and not entire bodies
Whole group physical behaviors
Supporting Language and Vocabulary
Use Sentence Stems
“When you turn and talk to your partner, I want you to use the words . . .”
Model Language: “I say it, you say it.”
Responding, “I did it like so and so”
Language when comparing work: “same/different, because”
Use of co-created charts / prompting students to reference them
Vocabulary: agree/disagree
Teaching how to ask a question back & generate own spontaneous questions
Vocabulary: accurate / efficient
mimic with
a partner
X exposure
Table 1: Teaching points of a kindergarten teacher during the year
2nd Grade
Teaching Points
Whisper to your partner (during whole group)
“Did you and your partner agree or disagree?” (beginning listening and repeating
Tell me what your partner said
coaching really
paying off!!
Jan Feb
“You two don’t agree? Who is right?” Don’t just let it be,
but push-back on each other
“How can you figure that out?” “Can your partner help you with that?”
Students are pushing on each other and keeping each other accountable
Students are voicing
disagreement on
own respectfully
Coaching on how to wait for your partner to finish her turn. “Watch your partner.”
“Do you agree with how she took her turn?”
Model how to help telling with out telling answer. “You could have a lot
of coins, do you think you could trade?”
Disagreeing and justifying
“Is the way he/she did it the same as how you did it?”
Providing list of questions students were to ask as partnership during games (race
to a stack with beans and cups)
Talk to your partner about ____’s way
Modeling how to ask partner to repeat and how to explain
Using sentence starters
Providing limited tools to promote discussion in small groups
Provide team activities where members have to decide how to solve
and which strategy to share
Table 2: Teaching points of a second grade teacher during the year for Partnerships
2nd Grade
Teaching Points
Sept Oct
Whole Group Discussion
Teach “quiet thumb”
Respect: No laughing, mistakes are learning opportunities
Good listening behaviors: No touching manipulatives, eye contact.
Physically adjusting eyes, heads, body
Begin number talks; collecting all answers without judgments
Choosing kids to explain
Ask questions to draw out solutions, such as, “How did you figure that out?” “How did you
count?” “Where did you start?” “Did you count like this or a different way?” Modeling if they
still cannot explain
Strengthening listening by asking another child to repeat/explain strategy of another student
Ask questions to hold students accountable for listening and deepening understanding such as
“Does that make sense?” “What do you think of what ____ said?” “Do you agree/disagree?”
“Any questions for____?” “Who can explain ____’s strategy?” “What should you say if you
didn’t understand, couldn’t hear, etc.?”
Chart and name strategies students use, such as: “Oh, you counted all, counted on, made a 10,
used doubles.” Chart as the students talk to make steps visible.
Referring to other kids’ ways as a way to celebrate students taking risks by trying a new way
“Is your strategy the same or different than _____’s strategy?” “Which strategy did _____
use?” (referring to the chart)
Teacher scripting children’s strategies on their papers and on the chart.
Highlighting students who try on another student’s strategies
Trying to get students to see that their peers are their teachers to foster reason for listening
more carefully
Getting students to try on another someone else’s strategy and acknowledging it with
students, such as “Oh, Marquis did it like Yosef did yesterday.”
Helping students learn how to articulate their thinking (e.g., “What did you do? Tools you
used? Where did you start?”) to be easier understood by others
Helping students to record their thinking. Model how to record each step
so the listeners can see what you did
Highlighting different ways of recording and different tools used in solving a problem
(“Let me show you another way to record” “When you put the blocks together,
how can you show that on paper?”)
Slowing down the person sharing between each step and ask class “Does that make sense?”
“Do you understand” “Who can explain that step” “Why do you think she did that?”
“Which ways are the same or kind of the same?” “Who’s might you try on?”
Having preselected student writing strategies to share
Discussing incorrect answers to see if kids will listen and respectfully agree and disagree
Allow time for the other person to react to partner during share out
Moving position from front of the room to promote explaining
Share partner’s strategy rather than your own
What do you think _______did next (heighten engagement)
Using document camera more for share out since students have become
more proficient with recording
Kids starting to
notice, “Oh, that
is how __ did it”
Table 3: Teaching points of a second grade teacher during the year for Whole Group Discussion
First Discourse Experience 3rd- 6th Grade
Teaching Points
Whole Group Discussion
Explain that we are having a conversation about what we built (model for problem given)
What do we do when someone is explaining his/her thinking?
*Listen (not just hearing, but thinking about what they said)
*Listening to compare to see if we thought the same thing the speaker did
*What does paying attention look like?
Don’t merely think what you are going to say next, rather respond back to the speaker - adding on or comparing
How do we talk like adults? - taking turns, not raising hands
Who would like to share? - opening it up to anyone (sometimes - other times choosing someone specific this depends on if the focus is on the act of sharing or a specific strategy.
When one person shares, ask some to restate
Teach students how to ask someone to speak up or to repeat themselves if they weren’t listening or if they couldn’t hear
“Could you please say that again, I wasn’t listening.”
Lots of turn and talk to partner with something specific to talk about
I have to listen so I can highlight a partnership and ask students to think about their thinking
Asking students to try on someone else’s way and explain what they did.
Asking lots of questions such as “Does their way make sense?”
**It is necessary to remind students often where their eyes need to be and to listen to what the speaker is saying.
Partner Talk
Generally on the first day I go around and listen and make sure that the partnerships are working together rather than side-by-side play and coach
I will ask questions such as, “Do you know what he did?” “Can you explain it?”
Direct when necessary (if students are having trouble working together) by saying, “When we share out, I want you to explain what your partner
At the end of one lesson, the discourse is not beautiful, but if the teacher is explicit with expectations and how to engage in discourse. children
will talk, mostly to partner, as they are a little shy about the group at first. Students definitely engage in what the other students are thinking and
make sense of other strategies. I would expect to be emphasizing the above points repeatedly for the next couple of months.
Table 4: Teaching points that can be made on the first day in an upper grade classroom around discourse
Managing a classroom that makes students are responsible for their own learning means that the teacher
has to become accustomed to not doing all of the work for them. One of the hardest things for teachers is
to stop jumping in too soon and answering their own questions. Once a teacher I was working with told me
that if she wasn’t always doing the talking, she felt that she was not doing her job. Just because the students
are the ones who should be doing the thinking and talking doesn’t mean that the teacher does not play a
significant role. One of the biggest jobs of the teacher is that of decision maker. The NCTM Standards state
that teachers must decide what to pursue in depth, when and how to attach mathematical notation and
language to students’ ideas, when to provide information, when to clarify an issue, when to model, when to
lead, and when to let a student struggle with difficulty, and how to encourage each student to participate.
These decisions, so well-articulated by NCTM, are central to effective math teaching and remain crucial as
we move into the implementation of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics.
A Look into Classrooms: Journaling About Discourse
Recently, a kindergarten and a second-grade teacher were invited to spend most of one school year
journaling exactly what they do to explicitly teach meaningful mathematical discourse. I also reflected on
what I do when I go into a 3rd – 6th grade classroom for the first time for a demonstration lesson and how I
start to get students to talk when they are not accustomed to it. This analysis was further broken down into
partnerships and whole group discussion. In the case of the kindergarten teacher, the explicit teaching she
did to support language and vocabulary was also noted. The following tables outline the teaching points
and what time of year each was a primary focus. For example, in kindergarten, the teacher worked on the
children turning and talking in September and October. In November, much less prompting was needed, and
after that it became a norm in the classroom culture.
Each group of students is unique and has different needs. The above insights are not meant to be a
checklist or recipe of how to facilitate deep mathematical discourse in your individual classroom, but they
can serve as a resource of the types of behaviors teachers need to explicitly teach and pay attention to when
trying to deepen the quality of talk. They can also serve as a reminder that it is best to teach behaviors in small
segments, especially with younger children. When teaching older children, unless they exhibit significant
social difficulties, it may be possible to focus on several different aspects of talk at once, but these behaviors
need to be reinforced on an ongoing basis. Once these behaviors become part of the classroom culture, it
is important to refine and deepen the talk by addressing specific needs of the individual group of students.
Carrying Discourse into the Individual Classroom
Mathematics educators nationwide agree that student engagement in meaningful mathematical discourse
has a positive effect on their mathematical understanding as they increase the connections between ideas
and representations. As we begin to implement the new Common Core State Standards, we need to not
only have a vision for what meaningful talk might look like, but also be equipped on how to get the talk
going. Teachers need to explicitly teach the social behaviors necessary in engaging in discourse on a whole
group, small group, and partnership level. Although there are common behaviors most teachers can initially
address, most behaviors are unique to the dynamics of an individual classroom.
Works Cited
Chapin, S. H., C. O’Connor, and N.C. Anderson. Classroom Discussions: Using Math Talk to Help Students
Learn, Grades K-6, Second Edition (Math Solutions, 2009)
Professional Standards for Teaching Mathematics (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1991)
Smith, M. S., E. K. Hughes, R. A. Engle & M. K. Stein. Orchestrating Discussions, (Mathematics Teaching in
the Middle School, 14 (9). 548-556, 2009)
Recommended Reading List
Classroom Discussions: Using Math Talk to Help Students Learn, Grades K-6, Second Edition, S. H. Chapin,
C. O’Connor, and N.C. Anderson.
Classroom Discussions: Seeing Math Discourse in Action, Grades K-6, N.C. Anderson, S.H. Chapin, C.
O’Connor, ( Copyright © 2011 by Scholastic, Inc.)
Good Questions for Math Teaching: Why Ask Them and What to Ask, K-6, Peter Sullivan and Pat Lilburn
(Copyright © 2002 Math Solutions)
Good Questions for Math Teaching: Why Ask Them and What to Ask, Grades 5-8,
Lainie Schuster and Nancy C. Anderson (Copyright © 2005 Math Solutions)